The House of Mirth By Edith Wharton Summary and Analysis Book 1: Chapter IV

Summary

The following morning, Lily is summoned by Judy to assist her in some secretarial duties. Judy gossips with Lily about the twice-divorced Carry Fisher and Lady Cressida Raith. The latter woman is married to a London clergyman, and divides her time between gardening and charity work in the slums of London's East End. Judy had considered it a coup when she was able to introduce Lady Cressida to New York society, but was disappointed when Lady Cressida reveals herself to be the "moral one," which can be interpreted as "boring."

Judy also confides that Bertha is angry with the Trenors for failing to convince Selden to attend their house party. She has an idea that Gryce will be a suitable substitute for Bertha's attentions, an idea that Lily resists. Her resistance is answered with Judy's admission that Gryce was invited for Lily's benefit. The two women discuss the nature of the Dorsets' marriage. Their conversation turns to strategizing Lily's winning of Gryce's heart and money.

Lily observes the courtship of her cousin, Stepney, and Gwen Van Osburgh, a wealthy, heavy-set woman with a less-than-engaging personality whom Stepney considers "reliable as roast mutton." Lily recognizes that Gryce and Gwen are similar in that he has a nondescript personality and she has a nondescript appearance. As Lily has made up her mind that she will win over Gryce, she is approached by the newly arrived Selden. Their reunion, however, is abruptly interrupted by Bertha.

Analysis

The reader is told that Lily feels "an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth" even as Wharton presents a foreshadowing of Lily's eventual banishment from society. Judy's request for Lily's secretarial assistance heightens Lily's feeling of dependence and servitude.

Changing perceptions in high society are made evident when the narrator recounts Judy's remark that there is "a divorce and a case of appendicitis in every family one knows." This comment is in reference to Carry, a twice-divorced woman who borrows money from Judy's husband, Gus Trenor. The arrangement between Carry and Trenor, while merely suspected by Judy, foreshadows a similar arrangement that will exist between Lily and Trenor.

Judy compares Lily to Bertha, and concludes that Bertha is the "nastier" of the two, which she imagines will result in Bertha's "always getting what she wants in the long run." Likewise, the narrator lampoons Carry's embracing of such causes and interests as municipal reform, socialism, and the Christian Scientist religion as indicators of the dilettantism of the upper classes.

The courtship of Stepney and Gwen parallels Lily's designs on Gryce. Lily believes that Stepney's lot is easier; all he has to do is remain quiet and he will be able to marry into the wealthy Van Osburgh family, whereas she must "calculate and contrive, and retreat and advance, as if I were going through an intricate dance, where one misstep would throw me hopelessly out of time."

Wharton reveals an underlying hypocrisy in Lily's character. As an outsider, she recognizes the shortcomings of the rituals of the wealthy. But as she resolves to marry Gryce, she becomes more accepting, "a stealing allegiance to their standards, an acceptance of their limitations, a disbelief in the things they did not believe in, a contemptuous pity for the people who were not able to live as they lived."

Glossary

parterres ornamental garden areas in which the flower beds and paths form patterns.

Engadine valley of the upper Inn River, East Switzerland, that was the site of many resorts.

crepe de Chine a soft, rather thin crepe, usually made of silk, used for blouses, lingerie, and so on.

chary not taking chances; careful; cautious.

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